Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2021

Author Talk: Zarah Butcher-McGunningle in conversation with Hollen Singleton about Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life

Tonight I watched a Crowdcast featuring debut author Zarah Butcher-McGunningle in conversation with Hollen Singleton about her book Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life. (Giramondo, 2021).  This book is one of the books I’ve received from my Giramondo Prose subscription.

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle (b.1990) is the author of Autobiography of a Marguerite (Hue & Cry Press, 2014) and Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life (Giramondo Publishing, 2021). Her work has appeared in publications such as Landfall, Best NZ Poems, Colorado Review, and Versal. She currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

This is the blurb:

From the discomfort of my own home I buy dresses, look up recipes, do online surveys.

In Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life, an unnamed young woman in her late twenties navigates unemployment, boredom, chronic illness and online dating. Her activities are banal — applying for jobs, looking up horoscopes, managing depression, going on Tinder dates.

‘I want to tell someone I love them but there is no one to tell,’ she says. ‘Except my sister maybe. I want to pick blackberries on a farm and then die.’ She observes the ambiguities of social interactions, the absurd intimacies of sex and the indignity of everyday events, with a skepticism about the possibility of genuine emotion, or enlightenment. Like life, things are just unfolding, and sometimes, like life, they don’t actually get better. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s novella-in-fragments blends artifice with sincerity, is darkly funny, and alive to the incongruous performance that constitutes getting by.

This was an interesting session because it exposed a side of life and attitudes that were new to me.  It reminded me of discovering the world of Dungeons and Dragons when The Offspring was an adolescent: a whole new perspective for me.

Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life consists of 63 pages of fragments, some only half a page or less, none longer than a page and a half.  So there was discussion about fragmented texts, Hollen referencing Jennifer Olfill but asserting that there has apparently been a ‘pushback’ against this style.  But Zarah feels that she didn’t set out to write her work in fragments — because she ‘can’t do plot’ it suited the form that she wanted to write.  Contrary to some opinions, it’s not ‘easier to write’, because every word on the page has to have a reason to be there.  Tight little mini-chapters give more weight to events and the things the character is thinking about.  Sarah says that she sees scenes in her mind, and that’s how she sees life, as discrete moments, connected in a way but not as with a plot.

Asked about the ‘oldest’ fragment in the book, Zarah said that 2017 was when she began, though she thought what she was writing and publishing in e-zines was more like poetry.  She doesn’t like the word ‘fiction’.  (And there was a conversation about hating adjectives which went over my head.)  Hollen, however, describes the work as auto-fiction (although she was worried about whether it was gauche to say that, which made me wonder about what made her say that). Zarah responded by saying that the work is based on life, dates she’s had, (including some she thought might recognise themselves!) but she has in fact (as many authors do) combined aspects of people she knows to form a new character.  (Only they’re not really characters.)

Asked about influences, Zarah said she doesn’t read much, especially not “old lit’.  She said she had read The Idiot last year, but I don’t think she meant Dostoyevsky, because she said it was funny.  Maybe she meant Elif Batuman, who is indeed amusing and in The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, (see my review) had a wry, self-deprecating style.  She also mentioned some other writers but I didn’t recognise their names and don’t know how to spell them… except for Amina Cain who was listed in the chat.  (I admit that at first I found this lack of enthusiasm for reading dispiriting, but on reflection I take this to mean that millennials are reading authors and texts that are entirely unknown to me.  Clearly, I have not been keeping up.)

Hollen commented that it’s hard to write about technology even though it’s so much a part of everyday life.  Zarah’s choice to write ‘Tinder’ instead of the wordier’ online dating site’ means her text will date: she used ‘taxi’ when actually she meant ‘Uber’  because she was thinking ahead to future readers of her book. She referred to some book (whose name I did not catch) that alludes to My Space, which is very dated now.  (This made me wonder if writers of the Jazz Age stressed about whether to refer to motor vehicles and Victrolas.  Maybe it’s always been this way?)

Hollen found Zarah’s writing politically interesting because of its commentary about unemployment being considered okay if it’s temporary but not if it’s long term.  I have the book, but haven’t read it yet and in a quick scan I couldn’t find the fragment that refers to these attitudes.  Whatever, the book ‘denaturalises’ attitudes that have become prevalent and entrenched about work — that, for example, you should love what you do or find something else, or that you should do it as a full time occupation — but (as we know) that’s a privilege that not everyone can have these days.  It was interesting to see that there was an audience question about this:

Q: I really enjoy that your book is an outright rejection of ideas about work being a kind of worthiness. Is this something you feel confident living by in real life or do you feel more ambivalent?

Zarah found the question affirming but she acknowledged that you still have to live in the world the way it is.  She wants to work in a job that makes a difference, and she believes that you can do that even in a job at McDonalds in the way that you interact with people.  However she feels that people tend to look down on those in customer service, and she has started studying in the mental health field.

The take-home message came late in the session.  Zarah said that when she writes, she doesn’t know what comes next.  And that’s what life is like for millennials, it doesn’t follow a set trajectory that you can predict or plan your life by because it doesn’t turn out like that.

That cover BTW is a photo that Zarah took for Instagram. But alas they didn’t explain why there’s a potato on the bed, LOL maybe the mystery will be revealed in one of the fragments of narrative…

You can find out more about Zarah at her website. 

Thanks to Giramondo for hosting this session for us to watch at home in Lockdown.


  1. I love the idea of book subscriptions. So many new authors and titles to explore and so convenient. (Although hopefully not shipped TOO far or TOO often.) So, now I’m curious, just how MUCH did you get into D&D? ;-)


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